Last Spring, I wrote about starting a new initiative called Release Over 20 with support of CCA North Carolina. In short, the premise is to create your own personal catch and creel limits stricter than the law allows. The name Release Over 20 suggests creating an upper slot when one may not exist. The 20” mark is a memorable and reasonable size to consider as an upper-slot for most inshore species, however, the premise applies to any species of fish and creel limits.
How it works is, if you catch and release a speckled trout over 20”, and send in a picture to releaseover20.com, we will send you free decals and each fish submitted gets an entry into a monthly giveaway consisting of hundreds of dollars of products from a long list of sponsors such as Eye Strike, Z-Man, Toadfish, Bubba, Mirrolure, and others. We are rewarding anglers for conservation.
Initially, I had no idea if this would resonate with anglers. However, after discussing it on podcasts in North Carolina, Florida, and Texas it has become recognized and embraced nationwide. Response has been beyond my greatest expectations. The initiative kicked off in May 2020 and we had 1,439 speckled trout caught and released through the end of the year. A 20” trout is approximately 4 years old and releases approximately 20 million eggs a year. The number of eggs spawned annually from these documented releases that otherwise may have been in an ice chest is staggering: 28.78 billion.
You might be surprised to hear that Virginia had, by far, the most trout released in 2020. This was followed by Florida, Texas and North Carolina. Conservation mentality varies greatly by state. For example, we have very few entries from the upper gulf coast states including Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
We are not the only privately run conservation initiative trying to change mindsets. Our friends at The Speckled Truth have a mantra “Take what you need and release the rest”. They have been around a few years longer and founder Chris Bush advised me that initially I would get a lot of pushback. It seems to be the natural reaction when suggesting a change in mindset. It might be that people simply resist change in general. But they noticed that in a few years, more and more people started hopping on the bandwagon.
Thanks in large part to The Speckled Truth, targeting “gator” trout has become increasingly popular. They are an amazing game fish, and to catch a true giant is the thrill of an inshore angler’s career. So, part of the goal of the initiative is also to improve the numbers of trophy fish in our waters.
Although it is true that trout populations in Charleston are influenced a lot by cold stun weather events, releasing more fish helps recovery in a few ways. For example, large trout are old and have likely survived at least one cold stun event in their lifetime. Why? It could be genetics. Speckled trout in Virginia, for example, can survive water at least 5 degrees colder than ours. Maybe the trout that survive can withstand colder water. Why not keep those survivor genes propagating? The healthier the population is at the beginning of a cold stun event, the faster it will recover.
After listening to a couple presentations by SCDNR on the decline of our flounder populations, I decided to add flounder to Release Over 20 for 2021. Flounder are a shared resource along the east coast, meaning that fish migrate along the coast over time. There has been a 10-year decline in the fishery and drastic action is required to help them recover. Most anglers do not realize that every flounder of legal size is female. In my observation, very few flounder caught of legal size are released due to their food value. And the number of flounder taken by gig is not known. Many feel that gigging is a primary culprit.
Reaction to suggestions to release flounder have been quite different than trout. Most anglers are dead set against releasing flounder. I hear a lot of opinions on what the problem is, and also finger-pointing. It’s always the other guy that’s the problem, etc. My reaction is simply to post facts based on scientific research. People have challenged my posts, but when I show them the table or chart where I pulled the information from, they back down and often stand corrected. I think that, again, its going to take people time to understand and accept that change needs to happen. My opinion is that instead of blaming the other guy, let’s affect a change in ways under our control.
As Matt Perkinson from SCDNR told me “On the flounder side, it’s an open and shut case. They are overfished (population of adults is currently smaller than needed to produce a healthy number of offspring) and overfishing is occurring (more fish are being harvested than the population can replace).”
SCDNR has recommended to our legislature pretty drastic changes: a limit of 2 per person and a closed season. Based on initial feedback to Release Over 20 for flounder, I believe the law will have to change to make a difference. Volunteer release is not going to be enough. Even if our government keeps all of SCDNR’s recommendations, they do not include an upper slot. The reasons for releasing big flounder mirror the reasons for releasing speckled trout.
So, we can all do our personal part to improve the fishery even faster by releasing the big ones. And in the meantime, maybe you will be one of our happy giveaway winners. Plus, who doesn’t want to catch (and release) more “doormat” flounder and “gator” trout?
Please give the initiative a follow on Instagram @releaseover20 and Facebook at facebook.com/groups/releaseover20
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing